Juggling Expectations and Happiness

What’s money without happiness? Does wealth truly have the ability to grant us joy? What is it that actually makes us smile?

Over the past several years, researchers have been working towards finding the relationship between the economic development of a country and associated happiness. As a common notion, we assume that more money paves way for greater happiness. Granted, living debt-free with a stable income and a worry-free mind is in itself a great gift, which unfortunately not everyone has.

However, the Easterlin Paradox, first formulated by Richard Easterlin in 1974, generalizes rather contradicting findings; rich people are not necessarily the happier ones. He, along with several other researchers, found that after a certain point in time, economic growth leads to a flat line in happiness, if not a downward trend.

Although the Easterlin paradox is still an ongoing debate and criticized by many, this generalization is not entirely untrue. One basis in support of this paradox explaining the unusual trend in happiness might be associated with greater innovations and technological breakthroughs, which, as you will see later, may ultimately give birth to an expectation gap.

Technology has vastly upgraded in the past few decades and is now at our fingertips. This technological evolution, distinctly more accessible to rich(er) people/countries, makes lives initially comfortable by increasing productivity. This increase in productivity theoretically means more free time for leisure.

However, as we see in the real world, this actually leads to a decrease in leisure time and an increase in stress. This is because an increase in productivity leads to higher expectations of people’s capability, by themselves and as a society.

Let me give you an example; how many times have you ordered something online, only to be disappointed when you see it in person? Have you ever planned a vacation and were deceived by the extensively edited picture-perfect shots and(or) videos on the internet? Were you ever jealous by seeing other people’s social media accounts and assuming they live a happier and more comfortable life, without knowing the ground reality? Or thought a high paying job, a bigger car…etc. will make you happier? If your answer to one or more of the above questions was a ‘Yes’, then you too have expected much more than what was delivered to you; or in other words, you fell for your own high expectations.

While high expectations aren’t always nasty, it is fairly possible that they may turn toxic. When our expectations exceed reality, we are caught in a vicious expectation gap which brings with it a plethora of negative emotions due to unmet, unclear or unreal expectations. Expectation gap is, thus, the gap between reality and what we want the reality to be. When this happens our perception of reality changes as we may come to believe a ‘fake-reality’ to be the true reality. In other words, we become mildly delusional to our own capabilities.

Technology has helped inflate the expectation gap. When we look at pictures online, watch videos or read blogs, we let our imaginations go wild, raising the bar of our expectations. We have more options to select from and, as is always the case, we want the best.

We try to look for a hypothetical trade-off and may assume that this (the best possible according to us) is what we want and that we are doing the right thing by selecting it, but this may not necessarily be true. In his book, ‘The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less’, American psychologist Barry Schwartz explains how the availability of greater choices does not help in finding a solution, but paradoxically makes us feel unhappy. While selecting only ‘one’ out of innumerable options, an individual is caught up in the idea of letting go of all the other alternatives. Instead of feeling happy for the selected opportunity, ‘freedom of choice due to plenty of options makes one feel powerless, lonely and depressed.

Technology has gifted us with more and more choices; so, we start constructing fantasies in our heads, just like young children, and often expect them to come true. In the world of psychology, this fallacy is termed ‘Magical thinking’ where one believes that one’s thoughts alone can bring about the desired actions. In simple words, expecting things to happen will make them happen.

But in reality, that is not the case. When we start constructing make-believe ideas, anything that delivers below a certain standard is considered unacceptable; an expectation gap. As our hopes are smashed, we end up disappointed. Crashing expectations thus brings anxiety and unhappiness along. 

Technological advancement is not the only cause for expectation gaps. More often than never, we anticipate things from others and others from us. This leads to situations where we expect others to behave in a manner pre-conceived by us. And when their ‘actual performance’ doesn’t meet your ‘expected performance’ (from them), it creates an expectation gap and eventually paves way for bitterness.

As some people say, ‘Expectations are premeditated resentments.’ When we make tea, we put in the effort to boil water as we know the water will not boil by itself. However, when we visit friends, we expect to be served tea; and if it is not offered to us, we may end up resenting the person. But why? Why do we expect tea in the first place? What/who gives us the authority to get upset when our friend doesn’t behave in the way we expected him/her to? This takes us back to magical thinking. We fabricate certain expectations about how we want people to behave, and non-fulfilment leads to shattering expectations, giving rise to resentments. In the above example, we mistakenly believe that expecting our friend to give us tea, will make him/her give us tea. And when (s)he doesn’t deliver, we are hurt.

Sometimes, we don’t realize that we expect things from people until they don’t deliver. Let’s say you often drive your friend to work. However, one day when your car is faulty, you expect your friend to reciprocate but neither does he show up, nor return your calls immediately. While he moves on thinking you didn’t pick him up, you are disappointed inadvertently due to his (in)action. You are disheartened, and realize that you had certain expectations from your friend which he didn’t live up to.

Unsaid expectations often go unfulfilled. Life isn’t always black and white and communication is the key to finding a middle ground, the colour in life. A huge burden can be lifted off of us by a simple conversation. Clear communication can be one of the only sources that enable us to look past this vast, unsighted curtain of expectations. When you articulate your feelings to someone, be assertive yet empathetic; explain them ‘Why’ and listen to what they have to say. Put yourself in their shoes, see the world through their eyes and show them what you see. Oftentimes, individuals draw expectations under varied circumstances. Things, people and situations change with time. In the world of expectations, nothing is right or wrong. It all boils down to one’s attitude and the way things are perceived.

The sorrow of dejection arises because we associate our happiness with satisfying our expectations. When it doesn’t happen, we feel sad. Nonetheless, if we do not anticipate things to happen in a particular manner, then deviation will not lead to disappointment.

A happier way to live life is to tone down on magical thinking and sometimes learn to let go of expectations. As a 2018 Olympic gold medalist in skiing, Sarah Hoefflin rightly said, ‘Lowering expectations can be the road to success. Every so often, we may set our expectation bar too high and if we fail to reach it, we may end up feeling downhearted. Sometimes, our opinions and actions may not be the only thing influencing happiness, as external factors might intervene. Make use of technology, but don’t let it completely influence your thoughts and decisions. It is time to rediscover the art of mindfulness and approach things with calm rather than urgency.

There’s really no point in agonizing about expectations when life can be made happier by keeping things simple. True, shifting to this mentality may require a significant amount of effort, but in the end, isn’t it all worth it?

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